Mist tumbles down the mountainside and swirls amongst the tops of the Canary pines, and droplets of pure water hang from each long and graceful needle. Spring flowers line our pathway, lotus campylocladus, jara rosa and more, tempting us to tramp further into the woods. From below, out of the brume and snaking between the tree trunks the haunting notes of a conch shell, that ancient sound which the natives used to warn of dangers.
This is not how the hundreds of vacationers setting up their sunbeds on the beaches maybe a thousand feet below at 9.30 on Saturday morning see the island, but for me it’s much more real and alive than almost anything which happens in a resort. The conch shell, or bucio, was being blown by the representative of the island government who was along on a guided walk yesterday. We were also accompanied by a group from Santiago del Teide, who were walking with lanzas, the long poles which the original island inhabitants, Guanches, used to propel themselves across the rocky terrain. You had to wonder if we’d stepped into a time machine, and back to the Tenerife of five hundred years ago.
But let me begin at the beginning – Pilar had sent me a message the previous day to tell me that in the nearby village of Arico there was an organized hike, titled La Ruta de la Brea, and it sounded perfect for this totally unfit body – only around 3 km which was also a good distance to try out my new walking boots bought in the post-Christmas sales. A quick check on the internet translated the world “brea,” a new one on me, as tar or pitch. I was puzzled and intrigued.
I’d woken rested, but aware that I hadn’t had enough sleep. Happy, when I recalled great sushi and good conversation the night before, topped off by what I like to call “the best ice cream in the world,” but knowing I needed another hour in bed. A cold shower, toast and peanut butter (for energy) and a couple of strong coffees later I was heading out of the door with my daypack and hiking poles.
9am Saturday, then, found us meeting in the town square of Arico. It’s a pretty village by standards in the south of the island, with seemingly vertical, neat and winding streets, and glimpses of woodland and greenery above, which is where we were heading. The mayor himself, an amiable man with a pleasant turn of phrase, came out to see us off. We were around 30 people, and there was a very good-natured vibe in the air, the day promised well. This walk was organized by the local council in conjunction with the Cabildo, the island government. It’s part of a series to promote the history and traditions of the island, as well as the countryside and environment. This was my idea of bliss – I was outdoors, in beautiful scenery, learning about history and in great company.
As this was only to be 3km I decided not to encumber myself with the walking poles, and left them in my car boot. We car pooled from the square to the starting point, the recreational park at El Contador. If you check Arico on some maps of the island you’ll find that the roads seem to disappear on the western edge of the village. In a way they do – modern roads, that is. The road we drove was narrow and potholed, (and to be honest, I was glad I wasn’t the driver – my poor, old car would never have made it!). It meandered its way upwards with twists and turns every few meters, until it petered out into a dirt track close to El Contador, on the edge of the corona forestal, the garland of forests, which circle the mountains between the stark, volcanic landscape on the tops and the rocky coastal areas. Views at every turn were spectacular, as the island turned greener before our eyes, and gave us glimpses of rural life which has changed little over the years.
We’d already noticed a difference in the air when we alighted in Arico, but here the air was clearer and fresher still, full of the scent of pine and wild thyme. Even around the small car park the wild flowers of spring welcomed us, and for the umpteenth time in the 20+ years I’ve lived here I wondered at how easy it is to escape the concrete below and seem to arrive in a different world. At this point I have to tell you that my camera is poorly and these pictures were all taken with my phone, hence the fuzzy quality on a lot of them.
We set off at an easy pace, an amble along a track which took us past a small farmhouse and into the trees. 3 km of this – easy peasy, not a test for my new shoes really……ha! It wasn’t long before we began to climb, and realize that most of the 3km was practically perpendicular! Remember my decision not to encumber myself with hiking poles?
I’d had no time to check the walk out, but I now know that it’s classed as medium to hard, which I guess is about right – for someone who is fit! But I moan too much. It felt good to stretch myself and strengthen my resolve to be fitter, and the deep and soft bed of pine needles underfoot made the going not really that bad. I lagged at times, but not too much I think, all things considered. In parts it was like climbing stairs.
In some places the path petered out altogether, and we simply followed the experts, taking deep breaths of crystal air when we paused to listen to the guides explaining how in the past what are here called Californian pines had been used in replanting of deforested areas, but over time hadn’t stood up to the climate, and there is now a movement to replant as much as possible with native Canarian pine; or to point out features like the lichen still festooned along tree branches, a rare sight in late spring, when the weather is usually much drier. They indicated the wee holes where woodpeckers had been at work, or the hollowed out trunks, some with cavities large enough for us to fit into, where trees had been tested for resin content. We were walking a trail used by the harvesters of that resin hundreds of years ago, a trail which took them, with their overburdened mules, from the steep hillsides over a thousand feet above sea level to the ports of the east coast below us.
This picture isn’t as sharp as I would have liked, but I think you can make out the lichen clinging to the branches, you can also make out the slope of the hillside, which is not that steep just here.
Brea it turned out is the Spanish word for the pitch, resin or tar which comes from the pine trees, and it quickly became big business for a hundred and fifty years after the Spanish conquest of the island in 1496, in a manner not dissimilar to the way rubber was going to drive colonisation and conquest in years to come in other parts of the globe. It was used to waterproof many things, but mostly importantly the ships of those European nations involved in exploring the globe, and fighting for the resources and novelties they found there. You know the names already, Spain, England, Portugal, France and Holland. By the time the Canary islands were discovered those countries had managed to get through a fair old bit of their forests, and were looking to find new sources for the product.
All of this I learned at our final stop, where we thankfully sank to the ground and snacked around the rim of an oven which had been used to burn the trees to melt down the resin. As it melted it passed through channels into another oven which we passed some minutes before, and from there to a drying area, before being loaded onto mules for the long journey down to the coast.
Our guide was expert and very articulate, so much so that not once was he interrupted during his chat, which I am guessing must have lasted a good half hour or more. I was much too fascinated to look at my watch. He talked of pirates, of the watch towers I’d seen last year on the Ruta de los Castillos, and the event we English know as “The Spanish Armada” – so different to hear “the other side” mention a slice of history. He explained the extraction process, and threw in many other tidbits of history along the way.
The history of this product, of which I’d not heard a word previously, is an important part of the history of the islands, but further is a typical story of colonization. Most of the exploiters of the woodlands were Portuguese, with even less of a vested interest in the state of the countryside than the Spanish conquerors, although, apparently, even back then it was a known fact that deforestation caused soil erosion. They worked in teams, usually 6 to 8 men, and often were enslaved Guanches or poor men working for a pittance. The built their ovens, cut down the trees, extracted what they needed, and when the area was used up they simply moved on to another, leaving a barren hillside behind them. Some 28 of these ovens have so far been found in the Arico area, and these, of course, just the ones sufficiently in tact to be able to identify.
I was already feeling the spirits of past times around us, when we were passed chunks of the hard, black resin to take a look at, and one sniff took me right back to another period, my childhood. I searched memory banks and I think it was the telegraph poles which carried our, then, novel phone lines down the road. I can only think that in the hot summer months the unseasoned wood leaked resin which smelled just the same as this piece I was holding in my hand. I remember them being sticky with black stuff which fascinated me.
It seems that research is quite recent and still very much ongoing, and I was very surprised to learn that our speaker was a volunteer, so eloquently had he explained the story to us. Frankly, I could have listened as long again, especially as the questions afterwards were also informed and interesting, but we did have a time to arrive back at El Contador, and time to make a move came too soon.
The descent, of course, was easier and quicker, so long as you had good footwear. I stumbled at one point and Pilar found me a stout, fallen pine branch to use as a pole. A few minutes later a kind stranger handed me another, from which he’d carefully removed all the smaller branches and twigs so that I had a fine support. I would have loved to keep it for a souvenir, but since I had to go back to the village in someone else’s car I thought better of it.
Not being so short of breath on the way down, there was lots of time to chat to fellow walkers as they paused to take a snap, or we paused to listen to birdsong, and then, back on the trail, fell in with different people. It’s a happy day when some of your personal worlds come together, and I had that kind of day yesterday, and it was the jolt I needed to kick me out the lethargy of recent weeks.
Mostly, it was just marvellous to be outdoors in the forest, a walk which was guided so no need to worry about directions, and enjoy the company of like-minded and friendly folk, and by that I mean not only my own friends, but everyone in the group with whom we interacted. I think I can honestly say that I’ve never walked with a better group of people. Mainly, this group were true Canarians with a deep of love for their countryside and history, and I have definitely never walked with a friendlier group. It seemed as if I’d met before every person with whom I had contact.
To bring the day to the perfect conclusion our driver pointed us in the direction of a local bar when we arrived back, where he said they did an excellent goat stew and a local ecological wine…….and he was right!